PATRICK, APOSTLE OF ULSTER
Nelson M. McCausland (UK)
A PROTESTANT VIEW OF PATRICK
Some time after his return to Britain Patrick had a dream which was similar to Paul's vision at Troas. Just as Paul, so Patrick saw a man named Victoricus who gave him a letter headed 'Me Voice of the Irish'. He was invited to return to the land of his captivity:
"We beseech thee, holy youth, that thou come and walk amongst us once more "
In his account of the vision Patrick mentions the people 'who were near the Wood of Voclut which is close to the Western Sea.' [Confession 23]
Silva Focluti or the Wood of Voclut is the only place name in Ireland which is mentioned by Patrick and its location has been the subject of much debate.
Tirechan, who compiled a life of Patrick in the late 7th or early 8th century identified it with the Wood of Fochloth in Connaught, a name which is said to survive in Faughill, near Killala, County Mayo. However Tirechan was a native of that district and this may have influenced his opinion!
J B Bury went further than Tirechan. He noted that the call to Patrick was to come and walk among them 'again' and then assumed that the call must have come from the region of Patrick's earlier slavery. From this he concluded that the six years of Patrick's captivity were spent in County Mayo and not at Slemish. [Life of St Patrick p 27ff]
Now Patrick certainly tells us that the Wood ofVoclut was 'close to the Western Sea' but that does not necessarily place it on the west coast of Ireland for in the ancient world the Irish Sea was referred to as the Western Sea.
Eoin MacNeill supposed that Voclut was a textual corruption and that the true reading was 'the Wood of Uluti', which he located near Lough Neagh. [Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy XXVI (1921- 24) P 249ff]
But even if the call carne from the west coast of the island that does not require that Patrick's captivity be spent there. It is possible to read too much into the word 'again'.
Patrick had suffered at the hands of people from Ireland. They had taken him captive and they had kept him enslaved for six years. Yet, his heart was not filled with hatred for them. Instead he had a genuine Christian love for them and a desire to see them turn from their idols to the true God. At the close of his book on the life and work of Patrick, Canon G A Chamberlain said:
"St Patrick had been deeply wronged by the people of this land. By their hands he had been torn from his home as a child and held in slavery. But he never paused to brood over the wrongs done him or nursed the lurking grudge. He sought no revenge save the revenge of serving those who had wronged him. In the spirit of the great Apostle, he had the grace to forget those things which are behind, and to press on to the better future. In the spirit of his Master, Christ, he set himself to love those who had despitefully treated him." [St Patrick: His Life and Work p 121,122]
PREPARATION FOR HIS MISSION
Before his return to Ireland as an evangelist Patrick had to prepare himself for his mission but Patrick himself tells us nothing of that preparation. However, Muirchu and Tirechan claim that Patrick spent a considerable time on the continent and there received his education.
According to Muirchu, Patrick spent seven years 'in his own country with his relatives' and then:
"set out to visit and honour the apostolic see, the head, that is, of all the churches in the whole world. So he crossed the sea to the south of Britain and began to travel through Gaul. But on his way he found a very holy man of approved faith and doctrine, bishop of the city of Auxerre, leader of almost all Gaul, the great Germanus."
After studying for thirty or forty years with Gerrnanus at Auxerre in central France, Patrick set out for Ireland but soon news reached him of the death of Gerrnanus and he was consecrated a bishop by Amathorex. Elsewhere, however, Muirchu alludes to his consecration as a bishop by Gerrnanus.
Tirechan's account of Patrick includes the three so called Sayings of Patrick.
1. I had the fear of God as my guide through Gaul and Italy and the islands in the Tyrrhene Sea.
2 You have gone from this world to paradise, thanks be to God.
3. Church of the Irish, or rather of the Romans! in order that you may be Christians like the Romans, you must chant in your churches at every hour of prayer that commendable utterance: Kyrie Eleison, Christe Eleison. Let every church which follows me sing, Kyrie Eleison, Christe Eleison. Thanks be to God.
Elsewhere Tirechan refers to Patrick seven years travelling 'on water, in plains, and in mountain valleys throughout Gaul and the whole of Italy and these lands in the Tyrrhene Sea.' [III,I(vi)] He quotes Bishop Ultan as one of his sources that Patrick stayed for thirty years 'in one of these islands, which is called Aralanensis.' This has often been identified with the monastic island settlement on the island of Lerins off the coast of Provence.
Tirechan wanted to link Patrick with the continent and with Rome and we may safely regard these spurious sayings and claims as having been invented for that purpose.
We know nothing of the actual training that Patrick received but during that period he must have acquired that profound knowledge of the Bible which his writings reflect.
Patrick had completed his training but nevertheless, for a long time, he was reluctant to respond to the call. Even on the eve of reembarkation for Ireland he was beset by doubts.
EARLIER CHRISTIANS IN IRELAND
The earliest reference to Christianity in Ireland comes from Tertullian, who wrote about the year 200. In his book Adversus Judaeos (c 7) he said: 'Britannorum inaccessa Romanis loca. Christo vero subdita.' - "Those parts of the British Isles which were yet unapproached by the Romans were yet subject to Christ." [Religion of the Ancient Irish Saints p 9]
TertuIlian referred to the British Isles (plural) thereby including the island of Ireland. His claim is something of an exaggeration in that Christianity was not the dominant religion but it is clear that several hundred years before Patrick there were Christians in Ireland.
Apart from Tertullian there is considerable evidence that the south of Ireland had received the Christian message before Patrick and that there were already churches established there. This has been attributed to the work of British missionaries but may also have been due in part to the influence of Irish colonists returning home or to traders visiting Ireland. There is also the possibility that some Christians from Europe sought refuge in Ireland during the barbarian invasions of what is now France at the start of the 5th century.
Ailbhe of Emly, Ibhar of Beccere, Ciaran of Saiger, Declan of Ardmore and others laboured as missionaries in the south of Ireland before Patrick, while Auxilius, Secundinus and Iserninus are associated with the east midlands and were probably among the first Christians to organise churches there. In A History of the Irish Church John R Walsh and Thomas Bradley comment:
"Most of these were probably British by birth, to judge by their names, and most are associated with the south and the southeast of the country." [A History of the Irish Church p 5]
The available evidence convinced the Celtic scholar Professor Thomas F O'Rahilly that:
"Irish Christianity owes its origin to Britain. ... Already before 431 no small part of the population of the south east and south of Ireland must have been converted by British missionaries." [A History of the Irish Church p 5]
Indeed down. to the end of the 7th century Kildare attempted to establish the primacy for itself and even the Book of Armagh acknowledges that Lommanus's church at Trim was founded thirty years before Armagh itself.
Patrick states in his Confession that he travelled to parts 'where Christians were not'. In the past this was thought to mean that there were no Christians in the whole of Ireland before Patrick but it now seems more likely that he is simply referring to Ulster, which had not been evangelised, and that there were already Christian churches and missionaries in the midlands and the south.
In the Chronicle of Prosper of Aquitaine, a contemporary source, it is recorded under the year 431:
"Palladius, ordained by Pope Celestine, is sent to the Scotti ([Irish) who believe in Christ, as their first bishop".
This suggests that there were already Christians in Ireland at that time and that there were sufficient to warrant the appointment of a bishop. Palladius is also mentioned in the Annals of Ulster and the Annals of Innisfallen, but these were compiled at a much later date.
The fragments of topographical information that cling to the name of Palladius locate his mission in Leinster. However, according to tradition, Palladius' mission had little success and he was forced to leave within a few months, disappointed and discouraged. It seems that he went from Ireland to Scotland and died there soon afterwards. There are a nurnber of churches in southern Scotland dedicated to Saint Paldy.
A THIRTY YEAR MISSION
Patrick sailed north, probably intending to visit the area where he had been a captive. Eventually he landed at the mouth of the Slaney River between Strangford and the River Quoile, on the east coast of County Down.
This was the start of an evangelistic mission which was to span around thirty years and was to see the Christian message spread across Ulster.
Patrick walked about two miles from where he landed and came to the low hill now known as Saul.There he met the local chieftain Dichu and spoke to him of Christ. Dichu was converted and gave Patrick a barn in which to hold his services. The Gaelic word for a barn is sabhall (now pronounced Saul) and this is the origin of the place name. This was the first church founded by Patrick and Saul has been the site of a Christian witness ever since. It is remarkable, however, that the same name, sabhall, was also given to a church at Armagh.
Eventually an Abbey was built at Saul. It was restored by the Bishop of Down in the 12th century but destroyed by Edward Bruce, brother of Robert Bruce of Scotland, in 1316. All that remains of the abbey today is one wall and two small cells.
A parish church was built on the site of the old abbey in 1788. This was replaced in 1932 by the present Church of Ireland building, which was erected to commemorate the 1500th anniversary of the landing of Patrick.
It is noteworthy that from the time of Patrick churches and monasteries were very numerous in all that district about Strangford Lough, where Patrick landed and laboured, and also further south round Dundrum Bay towards the Mourne Mountains.
Patrick began his mission in Saul and there, according to one tradition, he died.
It seems to have been at an early period that Patrick founded a mission settlement near Armagh, a very ancient and important site.
As far back as 300 BC Macha, the warrior queen of Ulster, had established her royal residence at Emania, near Armagh, and it became the capital of the ancient kingdom of Ulster.
It is often said that the Protestant cathedral in Armagh stands on the traditional site of the church built by Patrick but according to Revd W P Carmody:
"The site of the present cathedral is not that of the first church which was in the lower ground, known as Na Ferta." [The Church of Ireland AD 432 1932 p 33]
Patrick established a church at Armagh but it had no position of primacy over other churches. A number of centuries after Patrick Armagh gradually established a position of prominence but it was not until the Romanisation of the church by Malachy in the 11th century that the present system of dioceses was developed and Armagh was raised to the primacy.
The first recognisable township was centred around the great dun or rath now known as Cathedral Hill. It was known as Rath Celtair and Celtair was one of the Red Branch Knights. In the 6th century it was recorded that there was a great church at Dun de leth glas, the ancient name of Downpatrick. At that time the town was an important religious and academic centre. A dun was a circular fortified enclosure
Near Downpatrick is Inch Abbey where a church has existed since the time of Patrick or soon afterwards. In 1187 the resident monks were removed by the Anglo Norman baron John de Courcy. He built a new abbey and installed monks of the Cistercian Order, brought from Furness. There are extensive ruins of the Cistercian monastery but all that remains now of the ancient church is a sculpture preserved nearby in Inch Parish Church.
John de Courcy had arrived in Ireland in 1177 with a force of 330 men and headed north to Ulster. He captured Downpatrick and within six months he was in control of Ulster.
It is now generally recognised that most of Patrick's missionary work was carried out in Ulster. The historian Jonathan Bardon states:
"Most places traditionally associated with Patrick ... are in the northern half of Ireland and it was probably in Ulster that he did most of his work." [A History of Ulster p 15]
This is also the view of Professor Hugh Kearney.
"The likelihood is that he confined himself to the kingdom of the Ulaid with its capital at Emain Macha." [The British Isles]
But what was the extent of Ulster during the ministry of Patrick? Kathleen Hughes answers this question:
"When Patrick first set up his church in Ulster, that province must still have spread over much of northern Ireland, as it does in the Tain. Armagh was certainly part of Ulster. Why else should an important church be established so close to the pagan sanctuary and royal residence of the Ulster kings? The expansion of the Ui Neill began in the 5th century at Ulster's expense and the contraction of Ulster took a long time. Its final stages were probably not achieved until the first half of the seventh century." [Early Christian Ireland: Introduction to the Sources p230]
It was in Ulster that Patrick was converted; it was in Ulster that Patrick preached; it was in Ulster that Patrick died; and it was in Ulster soil that Patrick was buried. We are therefore entitled to describe Patrick as the Apostle of Ulster
PATRICK THE PREACHER
Patrick was a passionate and persuasive preacher. His knowledge of the Bible was remarkable and formidable. W S Kerr commented:
"In almost every paragraph of his writings St Patrick's devotion to the Holy Scriptures is made plain. His intimate knowledge of the whole Bible is amazing. His mind is so saturated with it that his thoughts naturally, as if unconsciously, clothe themselves in Biblical phraseology." [The Church of Ireland AD 432 1932 P 40]
If that was true of his writing it must also have been true of his preaching. His sermons must have been saturated with Scripture.
Patrick also had an impregnable sense of a divine commission. 'I make no false claim,' he wrote to Coroticus, 'I have part with those whom He called and predestinated to preach the gospel.' Yet he was a most humble minded man. He began his Confession by saying:
"I am Patrick, a sinner, most unlearned, the least of all the faithful, and utterly despised by many."
Moreover he offered praise constantly to God for having chosen him to be the instrument whereby many who had worshipped 'idols and unclean things' had become 'the people of God'.
Patrick combined strength and selflessness and he suffered much for the Lord he served during his ministry.Towards the end of the Confession he wrote:
"I expect daily to be killed, betrayed, or brought back into slavery, or something of the kind."
'THE FOOTSTEPS OF PATRICK'
Right across the British Isles there are place names which include the name of Patrick. In Scotland there are places such as Kilpatrick (church of Patrick), Dalpatrick (district of Patrick), Kirkpatrick (church of Patrick) and Portpatrick; in England there is a Kirkpatrick and a Patterdale (Patrick's dale); in Wales there is a Sarn badrig (Patrick's causeway) and a Llan badrig (church of Patrick); on the Isle of Man there is a Kirkpatrick; and in Ireland there are so many place names which include the name of Patrick. As well as place names there are also churches, rocks, wells and many other things with which the name of Patrick is associated.
It is sometimes thought that from these place names and associations it is possible to reconstruct his movements. As one writer put it many years ago in The Book of Days 'the footsteps of Patrick can be traced, almost from his cradle to his grave, by the names of places called after him.' However, this is simply not so.
It was often the case that centuries after Patrick his name was attached to a church or a place with which he had no connection, either out of devotion to Patrick or to give added status to the site.
There are many wells in Ireland associated with the name of Patrick but these should not be taken to prove that Patrick actually visited those sites. Well worship was a part of the pre Christian religion of Ireland and over 3,000 'holy wells' have been listed in Ireland. Eventually nearly all of these came to be associated with various Christian saints, including Patrick.This was simply part of a process of absorbing paganism into medieval church ritual.The fact that the name of a saint is associated with a well should not be taken as proof that he visited the well.
The policy of Patrick all through his ministry was to approach in the firstinstance the kings and chiefs and to seek to win them over to his side. He knew that with the tribal structure of society the support of the chief was necessary for him to gain access to the people and that if the chief opposed him there would be an insuperable barrier to his evangelistic mission. There is the well known story of Patrick preaching to King Laoghaire, the High King of Ireland, at Tara but as Bishop R P C Hanson has written: "There was no High King of Ireland in his day; the colqurful story of his encounter with King Loeghaire at Tara. is sheer fiction. [The Lifeand Writingsof the Historical Saint Pabick pI] It was only much later, in the 6th century, that descendants of Niallofthe NineHostages, rulingat Tara. in northern Leinster, claimed to be over kings of three provinces and later they claimed to be high kings of all Ireland but their power rarely extended over Munster or the greater part of Leinster. itwas not until the reign of BrianBoruin the 11th century that there was anything like a real high kingship over all Ireland.
Professor J CBeckett commented on the organisation of the ancient Christian church in Ireland:
"From the beginning, Irish Christianity developed characteristics of its own. Elsewhere, the church was being built up in lands which had once formed part of the Roman empire, where the tradition of territorial divisions was strongly established; the word 'diocese' was itself taken over from the Roman administrative system. But in Ireland territorial divisions were of secondary importance; the unit of government was an amalgamation of kinship groups dominated by a ruling family, and church organisation followed a similar pattem; the country was not cut up into dioceses but bishops were attached to particular families. Their great number (Patrick is said to have appointed 300 of them) and the nature of their position prevented them from developing the kind of authority wielded by bishops on the continent." [A Short History of Ireland p 12 ]
This is also the view of Patrick Corish who writes:
"It seems most likely that the original pattern had been that there was a bishop in every tuath or petty kingdom, and as many of the tuatha were small this in itself meant that, even at the beginning, many bishops could not have been very powerful figures." [The Irish Catholic Experience p7]
The earliest buildings used by Christians in Ireland were small churches which generally were built of wood. According to the Tripartite Life the standard church built by Patrick was only 27 feet in length.
Harold G Leask, who was the Inspector of National Monuments in the Irish Republic, wrote:
''A number of literary reference of early date indicate that the church and other buildings of the first centuries of Christianity in Ireland were built mainly of wood. This building custom of the Irish - then called the Scots - was known to writers in Britain of the seventh and eighth centuries, the Venerable Bede for one, as the More Scottorum. Thus Bede records that when St Finan of Iona, ordained and sent by the Scots, became Bishop of Lindisfarne in the mid-seventh century, he built for his see, not a stone church, but one entirely of sawn wood after the Scotic (i.e. Irish) manner, covered with reeds." [Irish Churches and Monastic Buildings 1 p 5]
The fact that the first Christian churches were built of wood is confirmed by the very frequent records in the various annals of the total burning of monastic settlements. Such frequent fires indicate that the materials used were inflammable and easily destroyed.
The early Christians built their churches of wood for a number of reasons. Firstly, wood was plentiful since the country was well wooded. Secondly, a missionary church would tend to use the materials nearest to hand and especially those generally used by the local people. It seems therefore that the churches in the time of Patrick were built on the well known 'wattle and daub' system. Timber was used for posts and beams, pliable willow and hazel was used for weaving the walls and roof, and clay was used to cover the wickerwork both inside and outside. The roof was probably thatched with straw or reeds.
But some parts of Ireland, especially on the wind swept western coast, were not rich in timber. Sometimes therefore, where stone was plentiful, churches were built of dry stone and the foundations of an early rectangular dry stone church, set within a circular graveyard, remain at Temple Cormac, Castleward, near Strangford.
The word monastery is derived from a Greek word meaning 'to live alone' and this reflects the original monastic ideal of the desert hermits of Egypt and Syria. Gradually, such hermits came together in small communities, though they continued to seek out remote locations. Among the first monasteries to be established in the British Isles were those in Ireland from about the 5th century. According to E. Estyn Evans:
"Irish Christianity grew up within the forms of Irish life. The Celtic church was peculiar in that the centresof its life were the great monasteries: there were no cities to form the seats of powerful bishops. Instead, the founders' kin retained the ownership of the monasteries and the Celtic tradition survived in administration" [Irish Folk Ways p 7]
The monasteries certainly played a significant role in the early church in Ireland but as John Ryan comments:
"In a word, the place of monasticism in the church founded by St Patrick was important but secondary. The great apostle, like all preachers of the Gospel elsewhere, relied on bishops and clergy, not on monks as such, to carry on his work, and to bring it, in due course, to completion." [Irish Monasticism p 96]
Learning in the monastic schools was, as it was for Patrick, first and foremost the Scriptures.
SOME CONVERTS OF PATRICK
We know very little about the converts of Patrick but the names of two prominent converts are still remembered.
Donard, whose name is associated with SlieveDonard, established his principal church at Maghera, near Newcastle in County Down. This was placed within an older cashel whose stone walls still circle the shell of the old church. Outside is the stump of a round tower.
Tassach was the founder of a church at Rath Colpa (Raholp). This church is not far from Saul, on the road to Strangford through Raholp village. The original building may well have been of wood but it was later replaced by a small stone church. Only the walls now remain of that building but it is one of the earliest Christian buildings in Ireland.
A PEOPLE OF THE BOOK
Patrick's devotion to the Bible influenced and inspired his spiritual children for the churches and centres of learning in Ireland became schools of Bible study and attracted students from various lands. As Louis Gougaud states:
"To speak very strictly there was held to be but one science, that of the sacred Scriptures. It was that science people came chiefly to seek from the Irish doctors." [Gaelic Pioneers of Christianity p 59]
Patrick and the churches he founded stood in the tradition of the early apostolic church as a people of the Book.
DEATH AND BURIAL OF PATRICK
The Book of Armagh which was written about four hundred years after Patrick's time, states that he died on 17th March and ever since this has been accepted at the traditional date of his death.
According to the Hymn of Fiacc, written in the 8th century, Patrick received holy communion from Saint Tassach, bishop of Raholp, just before he died but this is a late and unreliable source.
Armagh, Downpatrick and Saul have all made the claim to be the burial place of Patrick but the strongest tradition is that linking his burial with Downpatrick.
Muirchu did not assign a specific location to Patrick's burial place while TIreachan and the Tripartite Life said that, like Moses, his burial place was unknown. However, the claims of Downpatrick as the burial place of Patrick were clearly set forth by Dr William Reeves, Bishop of Down, Connor and Dromore, in a letter to the board of Down Cathedral in 1875, in which he stated that there was no doubt about Downpatrick being the burial place of Saint Patrick.
In 1901 a slab of granite, bearing a cross and the word 'Patric', was placed by the antiquarian F J Bigger on the reputed grave of Patrick beside the cathedral in Downpatrick.
TWO CHURCHES IN IRELAND
As a result of Patrick's ministry in Ulster, for a time there were two churches in Ireland; the more or less amorphous group of pre Patrician communities in southern Ireland, sometimes referred to as the 'Old Churches', and the church established in Ulster through the mission of Patrick. The Patrician church in course of time gained strength and gradually absorbed the 'Old Churches', so that they disappeared and vanished from history.
MISSIONARY OUTREACH FROM IRELAND
The establishment of a strong Christian church in Ireland was to be of importance not only for Ireland but for the rest of the British Isles and beyond.
As Professor J C Beckett has pointed out:
"Almost at the same time as Patrick and his successors were establishing Christianity in Ireland the Anglo-Saxon invaders were destroying it throughout a great part of Britain. The British church, which had never been strong or adventurous, made little effort to evangelise them and the work of recovering the lands lost to Christianity was first undertaken by Irish missionaries." [A Short History of Ireland p 13]
One of the first of these missionaries was Columba who left Ulster and established a monastery on the island of Iona. During the next hundred years missionaries went out from Iona to reclaim much of Scotland and northern England for Christ.
THE GREAT COMMISSION
Before His ascension into heaven Jesus Christ gave a great commission to His disciples
:"Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you and, lo, I am with you alway, [even] unto the end of the world Amen." [Matthew 28:19, 20 AV]
Patrick played a part in fulfilling that commission. He evangelised the lost, integrated his converts into a church organisation and defined and expounded the faith of the church.
His work of evangelism he described as 'hunting and fishing'. He hunted after people because he was concerned for their souls and wanted to bring them to Christ. He fished patiently for them, as a fisher of men.
This was God's work done in God's way and thereby Patrick secured the permanence of his work in Ulster.
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